By virtue of the current political climate, gender relations are being examined with a critical cultural lens that elevates works like Jessica Winter’s Break in Case of Emergency from sharp, wry satire to something of universal cultural import. Winter handles the troika of career, marriage, and fertility in her debut novel with a deft touch and smart pacing. She also shows a keen understanding of the frenetic tangle of work and life, creating a protagonist in Jen who is easily relatable from the outset, as well as a high-minded office satire somewhat akin to Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.
Break in Case of Emergency feels like an unexpected sequel to the wave of novels about being young and artistic in the big city. Jen, an ex-painter, feels like someone who has lived through their own personal Graduate ending and is trying to reconcile her ambitions and fears. She lives in New York with her husband Jim and has taken a job at a foundation headed by Leora Infinitas, a celebrity philanthropist (or perhaps more accurately a philanthropic celebrity) who is undeniably, intoxicatingly, intimidating. Winter has great fun writing this character and the way that those around her react to her presence: “Totally was something Sunny said a lot whenever Leora spoke. Sunny’s totally was so total that it became two words. Toe tally.”
The book’s setting and cultural world tends to veer to a specific Northeastern niche, but Winter’s knack for crafting well-shaded characters helps to make their emotions and decisions feel authentic and relatable beyond a single demographic. She displays this skill in small details, like Jen making a costly mistake on her second post-college tax return, and on broader thematic issues like the malaise that settles when your career no longer appears to have a boundless upward trajectory: “The fatigue was a chloroform air freshener, affixed someplace under her desk where Jen couldn’t reach it, every inhalation of its scent making her eyes water and her nose run and her lower jaw crack under the tensile pressure of gaping, heavy yawns.”
That universality makes the book’s feminine lens informative from a male perspective, particularly in the context of workplace culture. A scene in which Jen and her co-worker Karina discuss the dual meanings of the acronym TTC works as both vintage The Office-level cringe comedy and an illuminating passage about the potential difficulties of relationships between female co-workers. Winter shows the intelligence and capacity of Jen and her colleagues, but also the daily tribulations that can bog them down and the psychic weight of their work environment.
Gender is a topic Winter frequently covers in her role as features editor on Slate. Informed by that background, her novel skillfully fictionalizes real life concerns with dramatic flourishes and striking language.
Early on, Break in Case of Emergency sets itself up to tackle some important questions, and it largely succeeds in ways that may not always feel new. It’s a testament to the author that she can craft a story that is so specific and also so easy to graft onto the reader’s own personal experiences.